Rarely does the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights vote unanimously on anything.
A partisan divide has made the commission contentious in recent years. Yet the Department of Justice's decision to forfeit its voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party and three individual defendants drew a 6-0 vote with one abstention by the commission. What unified the commission was outrage at the Justice Department for letting the Black Panthers off the hook.
The Civil Rights Commission has sent two letters -- on June 16 and June 22 -- to Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, asking for an explanation, but it has not received a response. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, sent a June 8 letter demanding an explanation, but the congressman told us he has yet to receive an answer from the department one month later.
The Civil Rights Commission's first letter expressed its "great confusion" over the department's decision. After all, "defendants were caught on video blocking access to the polls, and physically threatening and verbally harassing voters during the November 4, 2008 general election." The video showed "one of them actually brandished a nightstick in plain view of voters and poll observers ... defendants 'made statements containing racial threats and racial insults.' "
The commission's letter quoted "Veteran of the civil rights movement, Bartle Bull" calling the defendants' actions "the most blatant form of voter intimidation I have encountered in my life in political campaigns in many states, even going back to the work I did in Mississippi in the 1960s."
The commission summed up the case in its June 16 letter to Ms. King: "Though it had basically won the case ... the [Department of Justice's Civil Rights] Division took the unusual move of voluntarily dismissing the charges .... In its notice of dismissal, the Division cites as its rationale only the fact that defendants failed to appear and respond ... the Division's public rationale would send the wrong message entirely - that attempts at voter suppression will be tolerated and will not be vigorously prosecuted so long as the groups or individuals who engage in them fail to respond to the charges leveled against them."
Lenore Ostrowsky, a commission spokesman, told us, "It is rare for a letter from the commission over the last four years to be sent out without any dissent." There's good reason for today's unanimity. One of the Black Panther defendants, Jerry Jackson, is an elected member of Philadelphia's 14th Ward Democratic Committee and was a credentialed poll watcher for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party when the intimidation occurred. We agree with the concern at the Civil Rights Commission. The Justice Department needs to explain why it is not pursuing charges against these thugs.